The hardest battles are sometimes fought after the war is over…
Jim Parish lost the war at exactly 10:00 PM, on January 12, 1998, the evening of his 35th birthday.
He had suspected for some time that a bomb was slowly ticking away inside him, a device planted years before, probably all the way back in 1991, when he’d come home from the Persian Gulf a hero and married Susan, the girl of his dreams, only to find himself suddenly transformed in her eyes, as sometimes happens in the flashback nightmares of vets, into a gook, a towel-head, from the beloved comrade he longed to be to Susan into an unwilling marital combatant — The Enemy.
He’d never understood the transformation. He had really tried to be a good husband — caring, thoughtful, hard working, kind. But somehow, under Susan’s defensive gaze, every caring act became a declaration of war, every thoughtful gesture a trick, work was betrayal, a cowardly retreat from the field of battle, kindness a subterfuge behind which surely lurked manipulation, twisted mind games cruelly intended to confine her with dependence, to rob her of her precious freedom and individuality.
It was clear to him early on that Susan resented being married to him, being married at all (as if he had somehow made that decision for her), and that the expectation of intimacy, commitment, sharing represented, in her eyes, a kind of emotional prison. Susan saw herself as a POW of married life, and she’d made it her mission, it seemed from the very beginning, to escape.
He could have accepted that, then, in the beginning, if she had simply gone. But she’d wanted the victory. It was not enough for her to tunnel out of the marriage through years of affairs, betrayals and lies. She’d had to make sure he would not survive — to come after her, he supposed, and mete out justice in some post-marital war crimes tribunal.
So, on her way out, she’d laid mines in every corner of his psyche, mines that went off around him at every turn, every time he flipped through a photo album, passed a restaurant they used to frequent, or found himself confronted with a TV ad featuring that model who looked so much like her, hawking that ridiculously expensive shampoo she had always insisted was a basic necessity of life.
Each subtly-hidden tripwire seemed to announce itself just a moment too late, when the split second needed to avoid the explosion had just irrevocably passed.
I can still get you, they seemed to whisper, just beneath the threshold of his conscious awareness.
He would never have denied her the shampoo, or anything else, for that matter. He’d wanted her to be happy. But none of that mattered now. She was gone, out of the picture, free. More accurately, he was out of her picture. She remained a ghostly presence in his, inhabiting the shadows of his solitary world, a mental sniper firing from empty trees, an emotional SCUD salvo nightly polishing the desert sands of his dreams into hot, black glass.
Since they had finally separated, four months to the day before his 35th birthday, his life alone had been a series of explosions which he was sure she could hear, if not see from her distant fortress of freedom on the far side of town. And he suspected that hearing those booms in the night brought her great satisfaction.
He had learned, in time, not to look at old pictures, not to go out, to leave the TV a black and silent sentry standing guard against invasion from the hostile, Susan-infected world around him. He had slowly built up his own fortress of isolation, a lonely but safe haven against a reality she’d imprinted with herself the way Roman Legions once worked salt into conquered soil, sterilizing the landscape against any hope of future life.
It was in that lifeless fortress that he’d first heard the ticking. It was coming from his chest, so, at first, he mistook the sound for his own heartbeat. But in the dream-sweat predawn stillness, after weeks of careful listening, he was certain he’d picked out a distinct counterpoint — Tick, tick — bubump. Tick, tick — bubump. The bomb was lodged in his heart, all right, so cleverly placed and timed that if he hadn’t drawn within himself, had moved forward with his life as friends and coworkers had all so cheerfully insisted he should, he would never have discovered it.
Somewhere very early on, probably on their wedding night so many years before, she had carried out a terrible, covert operation, and planted her failsafe doomsday weapon deep inside him — not just in his mind, but in his body itself. The mental mines had never been intended to kill him. To punish him, surely, to push him to the edge of madness and surrender, no doubt, but he now realized that their true, secret purpose had been to distract him, to keep him spooked and jumpy and unaware of her real strategy, to keep his attention focused on the daily battle for survival until her master plan could be fulfilled, and the war would be hers.
He considered himself lucky. He knew Susan’s pyrotechnic style all too well, and so he felt certain that this bomb, like her many small mines, would require a trigger. It would tick away benignly inside him until some prearranged event in the environment came along to set it off.
He had a chance. All he had to do to live was to let nothing in, to seal himself away absolutely, to cut himself off so completely from life that nothing foreign or dangerous or surprising could ever reach him.
To live, he only had to die to the world.
The letter that arrived on his 35th birthday did not come as a surprise. It was from his Persian Gulf platoon leader, Fred Martin, a man only a year older than himself, but a born officer, a man he’d followed into and out of combat, ate, slept and killed beside, shoulder to shoulder during that brief desert conflict. He’d written to Fred soon after the separation began, shared with him a dutiful report of the whole marital firefight, seeking the solace and advice of someone he respected, someone not Susan, of a man who had been like a brother to him in crisis, a steady and reliable center amidst the chaotic swirl of battle.
Fred’s wife had left him two weeks before he’d shipped out to Saudi. She’d been, to hear Fred tell it, a vindictive, heartless bitch. He’d last seen Fred the day he’d accepted his honorable discharge to pursue what he’d imagined would be a life of domestic civilian bliss. Fred had kept the uniform, climbed the military ladder, made a career of war and discipline. He had never remarried, never really healed from the original loss. In the end, they’d turned out to have more in common than Jim Parish could ever have expected. If he was going to reach out to anyone for support, for a stabilizing hand, Fred Martin had seemed the natural choice. He’d known Fred would respond. He had counted on it.
But that had been at the beginning, when he still had hope, before he had discovered the ticking bomb within him, before he’d begun the necessary routine of cutting himself off, of living without a telephone, of throwing away all intrusive mail, immediately, unopened. Communication of any kind was out of the question. His survival depended on it.
But the letter’s army base postmark, the crisp, military format of the return address, had called out to him, practically ordering him to be brave, to take the risk, to not easily surrender the hill of this proffered gift of respite and companionship to the fears entrenched in siege around him.
He brought the letter inside, let it sit, unopened, all day on the kitchen counter, visiting it periodically throughout the day, checking it for booby-traps, fixing it with a quick, backward glance each time he left the room to see if hidden enemies might slink like Trojan soldiers from beneath its seductively sealed fold. By evening, he had almost convinced himself that it had to be safe, that surely on this, his 35th birthday, he had earned some relief from his unfair, forced exile. It seemed only right. And Fred was, after all, his friend, his leader, his comrade in arms. If he could trust anyone in all the world, it was surely Fred Martin, a man of integrity and honor.
At 9:57, he opened the letter.
For three glorious minutes, he basked in his friend’s kind concern, the intimate details of Fred’s own failed marriage, his words of encouragement, even an invitation to reenlist, to escape back into the arms of a system that still considered him a hero, where he would always have a home, could always find companions who understood and cared.
But as the hallway clock struck the hour, the letter took a dangerous philosophical turn:
The question we have to ask ourselves, Fred wrote, is this:
Are you and I fucked up because our wives left us?
Or did our wives leave us because we’re fucked up?
Jim Parish experienced a moment of complete and terrible silence in which he heard neither the ticking of the bomb nor his own heartbeat.
He had underestimated her cleverness.
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